I don’t have a particular animus about scientists in one field weighing in on another, but they must have some degree of expertise to do so! Here’s an example of someone making a pronouncement that they’re clearly unqualified to make.
Sadly, it’s the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, known mainly for his work on quantum electrodynamics but also in many other areas, including topology. He’s also religious, describing himself as a “nondenominational Christian), and won the Templeton Prize in 2000.
Now, near the end of his career (Dyson is 89), he’s decided, like E. O. Wilson, that “individual selection” (natural selection changing populations by the differential reproduction of individuals) is a nonstarter compared to “group selection” (the evolutionary transformation of species by the differential reproduction and survival of entire populations).
Dyson works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and in its online publication he’s published a piece called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” The name refers to a tactical game in which two prisoners maneuver, without mutual contact, to get the best deal for themselves. Under some conditions this game, when played repeatedly by the same two individuals, leads to the “evolution” of cooperative strategies. From that evolutionists have concluded that cooperation could evolve along those lines: when individuals know each other and interact repeatedly, their best strategy can be “tit for tat,” i.e., start off by being nice to the other person and then keep being nice until he turns uncooperative. This might explain the evolution of cooperation in small bands of humans, the conditions under which our ancestors lived during most of their evolution.
Dyson’s own work shows that this answer is not so simple, and in his models the game doesn’t necessarily produce cooperation. That result is controversial, and since I don’t really understand the controversy I’ll shut up about that. What I want to mention is that Dyson, while describing this result, gets in some licks against individual selection:
I am interested in a bigger question, the relative importance of individual selection and group selection in the evolution of cooperation. Individual selection is caused by the death of individuals who make bad choices. Group selection is caused by the extinction of tribes or species that make bad choices. The fashionable dogma among biologists says that individual selection is the driving force of evolution and group selection is negligible. Richard Dawkins is especially vehement in his denial of group selection. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a model of evolution by individual selection only. That is why believers in the fashionable dogma take the model seriously.
Not really; it’s a model of behavior, not evolution. To make it a model of evolution, you have to have a model of how genes cause behavior, and behaviors like these are undoubtedly caused not by single genes, but evolve by the fixation of several to many genes. Evolutionists have been interested in the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma” simply because under some circumstances it produces a “stable evolutionary strategy” of cooperation, showing that at least cooperative behavior could be adaptive. But that’s a long way from showing that the strategy could evolve from genetic precursors.
Now that may have been done already (this isn’t my field), but I am confident (based on nothing more than my gut feeling) that in a small group of individuals that can recognize each other and have memories and sophisticated thinking, one could evolve a strategy of cooperation very easily, and “altruistic” behaviors where you sacrifice some short-term advantage for the long-term advantage of cooperation.
At any rate, here’s Dyson’s two arguments against individual selection in general:
I do not believe the fashionable dogma. Here is my argument to show that group selection is important. Imagine Alice and Bob to be two dodoes on the island of Mauritius before the arrival of human predators. Alice has superior individual fitness and has produced many grandchildren. Bob is individually unfit and unfertile. Then the predators arrive with their guns and massacre the progeny indiscriminately. The fitness of Alice and Bob is reduced to zero because their species made a bad choice long ago, putting on weight and forgetting how to fly. I do not take the Prisoner’s Dilemma seriously as a model of evolution of cooperation, because I consider it likely that groups lacking cooperation are like dodoes, losing the battle for survival collectively rather than individually.
What a bizarre example? How often is an entire population extirpated? And what could those dodos have done, via cooperation or “altruism”, to prevent their massacre? What we need are tons of examples of animals whose populations go extinct because they’re not as cooperative as other populations. Of course one can make up such ludicrous scenarios, but are they realistic? Not this one! For one thing, it doesn’t have anything to do with cooperation, or, indeed, the evolution of any trait except flightlessness. We don’t need such wildly speculative and unrealistic scenarios; we need data. And don’t forget the formidable theoretical arguments against group selection: once cooperation evolves via differential reproduction of groups (while being disadvantageous to individuals), it’s unstable, and a mutant “uncooperative” individual will begin to spread its genes. Also, groups turn over far less often than individuals, so the process is inefficient and unlikely.
Finally, as Steve Pinker has noted, sometimes populations succeed because they’re not “altruistic”: in warfare, it might be the most vicious groups, those least likely to coddle their own weak or sickly and most likely to slaughter others, who succeed. The Spartans may have been like this: cooperative as a group in killing others, but not so nice to each other.
Another reason why I believe in group selection is that I have vivid memories of childhood in England. For a child in England, there are two special days in the year, Christmas and Guy Fawkes. Christmas is the festival of love and forgiveness. Guy Fawkes is the festival of hate and punishment. Guy Fawkes was the notorious traitor who tried to blow up the King and Parliament with gunpowder in 1605. He was gruesomely tortured before he was burnt. Children celebrate his demise with big bonfires and fireworks. They look forward to Guy Fawkes more than to Christmas. Christmas is boring but Guy Fawkes is fun. Humans are born with genes that reward us with intense pleasure when we punish traitors. Punishing traitors is the group’s way of enforcing cooperation. We evolved cooperation by evolving a congenital delight in punishing sinners. The Prisoner’s Dilemma did not have much to do with it.
That’s just insane. Yes, of course we want “traitors” punished—not just political ones but those who betray us, our family, and our social norms. And I think some of that feeling—if not most of it—comes from evolution. But how does that implicate group rather than individual selection? After all, research shows that people are much more likely to want retribution against “traitors” who harm them or their families rather than those who harm society at large. That result is consonant with the evolution of retribution by individual selection (I count kin selection here), but not with group selection. Who would you feel more animus toward: someone who robs you or your children, or someone who robs an anonymous person in Peoria? The former, of course! If that feeling of “treason” evolved by group selection, there should be no difference in how you feel.
And pray tell us, Dr. Dyson, how can group selection rather than the “fashionable dogma” of individual selection explain things like mimicry, the blowholes of whales, or the fleetness of cheetahs. Did some populations of proto-whales go extinct because their blowholes weren’t high enough on their foreheads, so they all drowned?
I don’t like imputing this kind of mush-brained thinking to age: after all, plenty of old people are still sharp as a tack, and the Argument from Age is an ad hominem. Rather, I think Dyson has simply overreached himself here, in the same way he overreaches when he pronounces on God. At any rate, he needs a good chat with Richard Dawkins.